Monday, November 03, 2008

271206 bindabaat - Luang Prabang version part 2

Continued from part 1...

Another impact of tourism on bindabaat lies in the decreasing number of local almsgivers within the peninsula area, where ground zero & many of the temples lie. As property prices increase, locals move out & rent/sell their former homes to operators of guesthouses, hotels, restaurants, cafes, bars & pubs, cooking schools, spas, internet & ipod cafes, travel agencies, souvenir shops & minimarts, etc...leaving behind fewer residents to taak baat (give alms). There is not always enough food to make up two meals per day. Abbots are thus increasingly reluctant to take in additional mouths that would be difficult to feed. As novice 'Spoil Market' said:

There many houses have become a guesthouse, restaurants, and shops around LPB. This is because LPB has become a famous travel city and there is increasing lot of tourists every day. For my temple now there haven’t enough food some time, almost [his word for 'mostly'] it’s in lunch time.

There are two families
[from his village] that have sent their sons to be novice, but their sons stay at the temple far from in the town centre. Because the temples around the town is full. So, it's quite difficult for them to come to Monk school, and I think if possible when I leave the temple I'll help them to stay my temple. Because it’s near and convenient for their studies.

The cat would realise the extent of this problem in 2008, when monk Tata Young-fan casually mentioned to it & the vice-abbot of a Thai temple that he was a good cook, having honed his skills cooking lunch for his Luang Prabang temple whenever they didn't collect enough during bindabaat...both the vice-abbot & cat had the same ?!khuubaa Lao are allowed to cook?! reaction...& the vice-abbot was quick to emphasise to the cat that Thai Theravada monks do not cook, unlike Lao monks who were forced to do so when laypeople were forbidden to give alms in the aftermath of the 1975 revolution. Despite this shortage, many monks & novices in Luang Prabang were seen reaching into their alms bowls & giving food to the kids who gather at the 'monk shooting' hotspots to beg for alms. One who has been hungry before easily understands the hunger of others?

Some tourists have wondered why the monks & novices seem to receive nothing much else apart from rice. Unlike in Thailand, the monks & novices are not accompanied by temple boys who help to carry offerings that cannot fit into their alms bowls, except on special days like Boun Ok Phansa. Instead, laypeople bring curries, meat dishes, soups & desserts, etc in tiffin carriers & pots directly to temples. Few tourists notice this, & some have tried to 'add variety' to the monks' & novices' diet by giving them stuff like Snickers bars, Oreo cookies & Lays potato chips. Such items do get offered as alms in Thailand, but in small packages - for a good reason. A Luang Prabang novice had a falang stuff his alms bowl with a giant bag of potato chips, & not even a pinch of sticky rice could be placed into it after that. He had to walk on lid in hand, unable to cover his bowl, & collected nothing else!

In 2008, this photo appeared in this article, & was subsequently used for new signs advising tourists on the appropriate etiquette to be observed during bindabaat. The cat visited Luang Prabang again, & found that areas that had previously been relatively low key had morphed into hotspots too:


~2 years ago AOT was a novice following behind, now he is a full-fledged monk & one of the remaining three of his temple (BP, DT, Tata Young-fan, SS, DKS, ST & the previous abbot all having left) leading their line back to safety after yet another morning of running the gauntlet:


Back then CT was a 'year old' novice hiding behind his two elder brothers in this line, now he's a lot more experienced & used to dealing with this craziness, & it's younger brother TT who's now the 'year old' novice hiding behind him :) Perhaps this is a good training - learning how to remain focused & undisturbed when surrounded by distraction that borders on the overwhelming.

Things are getting out of hand, but at the same time awareness of the problems appears to be increasing. It is wonderful & heartening to see tourists who make the effort to do things the proper way, like this, this, this, this & even this (all dressed in white like Theravada Buddhist laypeople who stay in the temple while observing 8 precepts!), & also guesthouse owners & tour guides who show their customers the right way to give alms, & photographers who try to be mindful of their own actions:

Among the guidelines he broke included standing in the way of the monks as they passed, using flash right in their faces and standing above them as they walked by (he got on a chair to try to get a different angle of the scene). I watched him get right up in the faces of the people there and fire off his flash and hardly move out of the way at all when a monk was trying to proceed along the path.

It's photographers like him who make my job harder. No wonder there is a lot of distrust of photographers around the world - a lot of obnoxious jerks have blazed trails that every subsequent traveler has to navigate.

Maybe he got some good shots from his insensitive technique. Maybe his flash did a better job of capturing the scene than my high ISO settings. Maybe he got a good angle from standing on a chair. But I don't want to be that guy. I don't want to be the photographer who makes himself into an arrogant fool to get a shot (I mean really, I look silly enough with my two cameras around my neck). I mean, isn't part of the challenge of getting a good shot to do it while respecting your subject and the people around you?

Perhaps tourists who wish to participate in the alms giving could combine it with other attractions of Luang Prabang - support local weavers by buying a handwoven scarf (& even a Lao sinh) as a souvenir at the night market or Talat Phousy & respect tradition by wearing it for taak baat + buy freshly-steamed rice & other food offerings from the morning food market near Wat Phonexay, while at the same time exploring it to see what Lao people really eat...& even stay in local family-owned guesthouses & help their guesthouse owners prepare food for the temples, & learn how to make banana leaf offerings...all ways of gaining a more meaningful experience while supporting the temples that they have come to see & contributing to the local economy?

As increasing numbers of Western tourists participate in the giving of alms, the sight of falang taak baat might well emerge as a new attraction for Lao & other Asian tourists ;)


Anonymous said...

Great post, insightfull without being condescending. And some terrific ideas. One of your best.

travel-to-laos said...

Great article, giving arm is part of making merit. Lao people consider this is very good way of making merit.